Sunday, July 24, 2011

My grandmother's pancakes

That's my Icelandic grandmother, or Amma, on the far left in the tweed suit, holding a fur hat in her hand. This picture was probably taken when I was about six or seven, at least 33 years ago. That's me on the far right, in the rust-red pants, brown turtleneck, leg cocked back slightly. Between me and my grandmother are my uncle, his two first children, my grandfather (Afi), and my aunt. I am not sure who stands behind my aunt. This was taken somewhere in Iceland. We are on a picnic. Perhaps we are here to pick blueberries or kr√¶kiberjum (crowberries); I imagine we are.

My grandmother's clothes in this photo interest me. She is dressed so well for a trip to a wild meadow surrounded by distant mountains. Did she always dress this nicely when going out, regardless of where she was going? I honestly can't remember. My memories of her only come in bits and pieces now: a glimpse of her through the glass upon landing at the old Reykjavik airport, her bundling me up in a thick woolen Icelandic sweater to keep me warm, the teddy bears she knitted for me, her calling me by my cousin's name when illness had devastated her memory. She had a soft round face with a little peach fuzz on her skin and usually wore her hair in a net. But these memories are so deeply inadequate to suggest a person's life or what she meant to me. Here's my only other photo of her, with me and Afi on a boat in Sweden:

Food memories stand in for much that I've never really known about my grandparents. For example, Afi and Amma always bought a particular brand of chocolate-flavored cereal when I came to visit. I think they bought it just for me, and I loved it. Even though I no longer eat processed cereal, when I smell that particular brand of cereal, and it has a very particular smell, I find myself back at their small kitchen table, eating out of the bowl with the picture at the bottom. I see my grandfather winding up a toy with a key and kneeling down stiffly to set it loose on the kitchen floor. I see all kinds of details about their apartment: the glass doors to the dining room with the etched fish and bubbles, the cuckoo clocks, the couch stuffed with so many decorative cushions no one could sit on it, the blue cot I slept on, the textured concrete of the balcony. Outside was a gray and green world that smelled of fish and harbor. 

Inside fresh, cold air wafted through the lace curtain at an open window, the sounds of traffic rose from the road below, and a huge stack of thin pancakes grew in the kitchen. Now my family calls these pancakes Swedish pancakes. I don't know how or why that happened. I always liked them, the pancakes, but I had no idea they would leave me with such powerful sense memories. In essence, they are thin, sweet crepes with a slightly lemony flavor, but to me they represent memories of Iceland, of the vast banquets of cakes, kleinur, cookies, sweets, and pea and carrot salad on crackers served as just a little afternoon "coffee." We seemed to have these little coffees every day at every relative's house. The pancakes were also served as a special occasion dessert with whipped cream and jam. We had them as picnic food, sprinkling on sugar and rolling them into tubes like cigars. The crunch of the raw sugar at the center of a soft pancake roll makes the memories for me. 

The ingredients are simple enough, but these pancakes take a little practice to get right. It also takes a little experimentation with your equipment. It took me several tries with various spatulas and pans and measures until I found just the right way to make them. They should be very thin with a fine lace edge. They should be browned just right on both sides.

The ingredients:

  • 2 medium eggs
  • 3 deciliters milk
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1.5 deciliters all-purpose flour
  • zest of one lemon
  • 4 Tbsp butter (divided)
The equipment:
  • medium bowl
  • balloon whisk
  • fine zester
  • 1/4 cup measuring cup
  • frying pan about 8-9 inches in diameter
  • a pastry brush
  • a small sauce pan
  • a hard spatula that covers at least half the pan.
Now, for some explanations for the equipment choices. Bowl, whisk, zester? Well, what do you think? The size of the measuring cup and the pan, however, do matter. If you just barely fill the measuring cup, you will get the perfect amount of batter to spread across your pan. Pan size also matters. If it is too big, the batter will set before you have time to coat it with batter. Too small, and the pancake will be too thick. With the right size pan and a bare quarter cup of batter, you'll get just the right thickness every time. Spatula size also really matters here, because you want it to support as much as possible of your pancake so that you can easily flip it.  Pastry brush and small sauce pan are for buttering the pan every time you start a new pancake. Don't assume there's going to be enough butter left in the pan; there won't be.

Now, how do you make the pancakes? First off, make the batter: Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a small sauce pan. Mix milk and eggs in your bowl and whisk in 2 tablespoons melted butter (the butter will look curdled because it will get cold in the milk; don't worry about it as long as it's somewhat evenly dispersed). (Leave the remaining butter in the sauce pan on low temperature.) Mix salt, sugar, and flour together and add the flour mixture in batches to the liquid, whisking continuously to avoid lumps (small lumps are not a problem; if you get big ones, you'll probably need to strain the batter). Whisk in the lemon zest. Voila, batter! 


Next, make the pancakes. Heat your 8-9 inch frying pan on medium heat. Give it at least five minutes to let it get hot enough and to even out the temperature. Brush the pan with melted butter (just the barest amount to cover the pan, but not pool). It will sizzle a bit. 

Add just slightly less than 1/4 cup of the batter to the pan. Quickly swirl the batter around to coat the pan. If you get a hole or two, don't fret, it will still taste wonderful, just try to cover the pan as evenly as possible. 

Let it cook for about a minute or two. Feel around the edges with the spatula, once you are able to get the spatula under the pancake without tearing it, take a peek at the underside.

When you like the color, get the spatula as far under the pancake as you can and turn it over. You can help a little with your other hand as needed. Also, if it sort of lands in the pan a little folded, all is not lost, you can shake the pan around and straighten out the pancake. Then cook until you like the color on the underside (another minute or two). Transfer the pancake to a plate. Then start from the beginning again: brush the pan with a little bit of melted butter...

It does take a little practice to make them pretty, but even if you rip and tear the first ones, don't worry about it. They will still be good. Serve rolled up with sugar. Serve with maple syrup. Serve with jam and whipped cream. Eat them straight. Or eliminate the sugar in the batter and serve with a savory filling. Just enjoy them. 

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